Supreme Court Limits Free speech rights to follow a person around in pubic and get into their face to express your opinion….

 Foes of abortion-rights in Chicago ought to be relieved to know that they’ll continue to have the First Amendment right to “protest, counsel, shout, implore, dissuade, persuade, educate, inform and distribute literature” on the sidewalks outside abortion clinics, despite new restrictions imposed on them in a measure passed Wednesday by the City Council.

They’re not.

Instead they’re mounting protests and threatening lawsuits claiming the new ordinance infringes on their freedom of speech because it forbids them from getting up in the faces of patients and employees at the doors of the clinics.

Specifically, the law creates a 50-foot buffer zone around entrances to all medical buildings. Protesters still are allowed inside that zone, but can no longer come within 8 feet of people going in and out for the purpose of approaching them to offer counseling, education, prayer, opprobrium or leaflets that would fall under the loose heading of protest statements.

Does a person have a right to be free from being “dogged” on a public street by someone who wishes him to hear an expression of his point of view on abortion? Or on any topic for that matter?

It’s not an inconsiderable question.

Without some potential access to an audience, the right to free speech is meaningless and its exercise futile — one reason why the so-called “protest pens” on the outskirts of political conventions are such an affront to the Constitution.

But without time, place and manner restrictions, you get “speech” that turns into harassment and crosses the line between expression and intimidation.

“The unwilling listener’s interest in avoiding unwanted communication has been repeatedly identified in our cases,” wrote Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens for the 6-3 majority in the Colorado case. “It is an aspect of the broader ‘right to be let alone’ that (Justice Louis Brandeis, in 1928) characterized as ‘the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.’ ”

The nation’s high court has weighed these two, often contradictory rights many times over the years and sought middle ground that “protects the right of every citizen to reach the minds of willing listeners,” as Stevens wrote, while still “protecting listeners from unwanted communication” and making sure that restrictions are content-neutral; not based on whether the government approves of the message of the protesters.

So we have bans on picketing people’s homes in residential neighborhoods, bans on solicitation in airports, bans on at-large leafleting at state fairs, bans on electioneering at polling places and so on

 Chicago’s new ordinance, if signed into law, will still allow anyone entering and leaving an abortion clinic to stop and talk to the protesters and take their literature if he or she wishes to. The 8-foot “bubble” limit applies only to protesters who are actively approaching someone, not to those standing in place on a sidewalk holding up signs or photos or holding out leaflets.

The protesters can speak — 8 feet is a conversational distance — or they can yell, pray, sing, whatever. Despite their bleating to the contrary, their First Amendment rights are safe. The new law will not restrict them from expressing their point of view online, on the air, in print and even within easy earshot of those going into the clinic for abortions.

Those who wish to exercise their right to ignore them ought to be relieved as well.

Click here for relevant U.S. Supreme Court cases and other background documents, including the full text of the Chicago ordinance as passed and an earlier comment thread on this topic.

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